If you’re ready to step up from handheld flashes to more powerful and accessory-ready, studio-style strobes, consider monolights. They offer an affordable, powerful and easy-to-use lighting solution. Unlike pack systems, monolights don’t tether to a central power pack. Instead, they plug directly into an AC outlet and include all of the controls in a single unit. With a single monolight you can start shooting immediately.
All monolights share a few features. The power adjustments are contained on the unit itself, and on higher-end models the output is adjustable in smaller increments across a wider range. This makes it easier to dial in precise output for finely tuned exposures. Because each unit operates independently of others, no complex ratios are required to balance the output to each flash. And since monolights can be dialed down to very low power, location photographers tend to like them because they easily balance with ambient light.
Location photographers also like monolights because they’re self-contained; there’s less stuff to carry on location, and many monolights are designed for portability. That’s not to say monolights can’t be powerful. Units are commonly available at 1000ws and more. (When measuring the output of handheld strobes, a guide number is used. But with studio strobes, output is measured in watt seconds (ws). A 1000ws strobe is equivalent to 10 100-watt light bulbs turned on for one second. That’s a lot of light.)
Monolights also have photocells. These light-triggered slaves allow a single monolight flash (fired by sync cord or remote transmitter) to trigger additional monolights in a scene. This also translates to fewer cords and the ability to place lights far apart from one another—a huge benefit for photographers who work in large spaces like factories or arenas.
Many monolights also have proportional model light settings. That means that the intensity of a model lamp can be tied directly to the intensity of the flash output. This makes it easy to see ratios in real time with the naked eye, something that’s especially helpful when learning to work with studio strobes.
The Solo monolights from Visatec are a low-cost, easy-to-use solution. The 400B model puts out a full 400ws, continuously variable over a three-stop range, and via controls that are designed to be as simple as possible. The proportional model light can be set to full power or to automatically adjust with the intensity of the strobe. The fan-cooled unit helps with rapid-fire shooting, and an auto shutoff protects the strobe from overheating. Estimated Street Price: $430. www.visatec.com
Calumet‘s pair of Travelite "R" monolight strobes are radio-enabled to make them compatible with PocketWizard and LiteLinks transmitters. When working tethered to a sync cord, the strobes use a low-voltage sync to protect digital cameras. Available in 375ws and 750ws sizes, they’re a low-power option for photographers who want to match ambient light, yet they’re high-powered enough for blackout studios. Coated flashtubes provide more consistent color temperature, too. Estimated Street Price: $575 (375ws); $675 (750ws); PocketWizard card included. www.calumetphoto.com
Photogenic offers a wide variety of monolight options, but its Solair series incorporates the company’s most advanced technologies. Available in 500ws and 1000ws options, with or without built-in PocketWizard receivers, the Solair monolights use constant color technology to maintain consistent color from flash to flash. Microprocessors keep flash output constant to a 1?20-stop with adjustability across an 8-stop range in 1?10-stop increments. They also include an auto-bracketing feature to fire additional flashes for over- or underexposure without changing camera settings. Estimated Street Price: $1,000 (500ws); $1,175 (1000ws); with built-in PocketWizard receivers. www.photogenic.com
Paul C. Buff makes the Einstein E640, a monolight with variable power in 1?10-stop increments across an 8-stop range—from 2.5ws up to full 640ws output. World travelers will appreciate the "global plug-and-play" feature that makes the flash compatible with AC power anywhere. Action Mode minimizes the flash duration down to 1/13,000 sec. for high-speed photography, and a Micro SD card slot can be used to upgrade the unit’s firmware when features are added in the future. Estimated Street Price: $500. www.paulcbuff.com
Adorama‘s monolights are for photographers on a budget. The Budget Monolight Kit #4 includes three 100ws monolights, three light stands, two umbrellas, a barn door set, a snoot and a Softex carrying case. These little strobes are portable, too, weighing less than one pound each at just seven inches long. The flashes can be fired via built-in photocells or the included 12-foot sync cord. Deluxe features and fine controls are limited, but in such a compact and affordable unit that’s to be expected. Estimated Street Price: $290 (kit); $50 (monolight). www.adorama.com
Dynalite has long been known for making high-quality strobes in highly portable packages, but the ultimate in location portability comes from a Uni400JR monolight and Jackrabbit battery pack. The kit combo brings studio lighting control to the most remote locations. The 400ws monolight is 320ws when used with the Jackrabbit, and power is adjustable in 1?3-stop increments across a 4-stop range. Expect 150 flashes at full power, or up to 300 at quarter-power. Estimated Street Price: $1,100. www.dynalite.com
The Speedotron Force monolights are compatible with all Speedotron light-control accessories. The Force 5 500ws monolight is fan-cooled and recycles fast enough to produce 4 fps shooting at low power. Like the Force 5, the 1000ws Force 10 uses a focusing ring to change the beam angle of a normal reflector from 35º to 90º, with variable power in 1?3-stop increments over a range of 8 stops. Estimated Street Price: $720 (500ws); $830 (1000ws). www.speedotron.com
For photographers looking to get started with studio lighting, Elinchrom has made it easy with its D-Lite-4 it and D-Lite-2 it "To Go" sets. These kits include two lights (200ws or 400ws), stands, softboxes, a stand case and a hard light case, as well as a SkyPort radio transmitter and built-in receiver
s for wireless connectivity. To trigger the strobes with a camera’s pop-up flash, the D-Lites can be set to work around red-eye-reducing pre-flashes. Microprocessor-controlled fans switch on automatically based on internal temperatures, too. Estimated Street Price: $690 (D-Lite-it 4); $810 (D-Lite-it 2). www.elinchrom.us